I had lunch with my cousin today. We had arranged to meet at noon at Parque Berrío, right in the center of Medellín. She was coming from Santa Elena, a small town located an hour away from the city, past the mountains in the East. I was coming from my hotel in the South, twenty-some minutes away from our meeting point. It took us a few minutes to find each other. I had asked the taxi driver to drop me off next to the Metro station on the corner of the big plaza. However, I felt disoriented as soon as I got out of the car and instinctively walked in the opposite direction, going under the elevated metro track and stopping next to one of the many tiny stores in the underpass. The stores were full of countless types of objects and I felt a sense of relief watching the small business owners stationed next to their merchandise, chatting with people. While standing there, under the elevated metro, I realized that I had probably avoided walking toward the large plaza because I felt intimidated by the wall of people and the numerous buses and cars continuously moving around the square. I felt I would have been absorbed by the mass, becoming invisible inside of it.
I began walking away from a shoe shop, up the steps towards the square, and called my cousin. Yes! I’m here, where are you, Juana? I’m coming from the stairs, where are you? I’m next to a palm tree, I’m wearing a black cap, do you see me? No, which palm tree? Wait, I see you now… Where? Here, here! I’m still near the staircase but don’t see you… Stay there, I’ll come to you. The plaza was not particularly crowded. There were some people standing under the tall palm trees or sitting on the benches around the geometrically-shaped green areas. There were also a few people like me, wandering around, looking up, looking down, stopping for a few seconds, then looking to one side and another without seeking a precise destination. The rest were passersby walking directly through the square with the fast pace and confidence typical of those familiar with their route and not easily distracted, even if they walk by new people every day.
We hugged each other a few times. It felt great to see her familiar face and to have finally found each other in that unfamiliar but welcoming public place. On our way to lunch, she told me that the market for her artisanal products — handmade bracelets, necklaces, pins, dreamcatchers — had been slow this season. People don’t seem to want to spend their money as soon as they get their paychecks anymore. Plus, it’s getting harder to be able to set up your “parche” on the ground and sell stuff in some public spaces. They are not allowing us to stay for that long.
It took me a few minutes to realize that her work as a seller of artisanal products was related to an artwork I had just been thinking about. I tried to explain it to her.
You know, contemporary artists sometimes work with different media and there’s this one artist in New York who has used a pretty wide range of materials, sometimes combining different objects he finds or collects and assembles together… hair, bottle caps, basketball hoops, clothing parts, photographs… I’d say his work comes from him being mostly a sculptor, he’s good at working with space and with objects in space, but he has also made two-dimensional works… for instance, he made a series of prints by putting grease and ink on his body and pressing himself onto a surface. He has also made large installations, sometimes incorporating sound. Music, and especially jazz, is important to him. One day, he had a show in New York where he left a space completely empty and dark, a commercial gallery. He only gave people those little keychains with LED lights to walk around with. He chose the ones with a blueish light. I remember my mom had one of those to find stuff inside her purse, it probably worked for her but I doubt those little keychains were able to provide much light to illuminate more than a few feet away from wherever people were standing in that big dark gallery space. I didn’t see that show but I know people who did and some of them found it arrogant and even fraudulent and others loved it and thought it was a masterpiece… those are the kinds of reactions he gets. Anyway, he has done many different things, usually unexpected, poetic, and twisted at the same time. His behavior is unpredictable too. He’s pretty well-known at this point and his work is pretty expensive too, but what I like about him is that he is his own thing, you know… It doesn’t seem that he’s interested in looking for people’s approval, quite the opposite. He’s the one who decides when to show his work, where to show it, who can buy it, under which terms someone can buy it, and when it is or is not okay to even meet him or have any type of contact with him. All that seems to be at the core of his work, that’s kind of what the work is about, deciding when to give importance or value to things; but he’s the one who decides, no one else. And, well, I must say that, in addition to being a fantastic artist, he’s also “African-American,” as they say in the US, and, as you know, the US is still pretty segregated. It’s difficult to be so direct and talk about the devastating social differences and injustices in the US these days, and it’s very hard to find people like him gaining such power and authority, being respected and leading his own game, especially in the white-dominated art world. His work incorporates elements from his own background growing up in Illinois, but I think he also incorporates things that are still part of his life, stuff he sees around him on a daily basis. I read that he likes walking a lot. Sometimes I think his work is the compilation of a world he wants to be surrounded by, which includes people, spaces, and objects but also stories (real or fantastical), situations, and memories. He’s a very private person, but I imagine “his people” aren’t necessarily only “art world people.” Sure, he deals with some of them, some pretty heavy duty ones, I’m sure, but there’s a sensibility in his work that is not so present in the world of art these days. It’s hard to explain with words, but the first thing that comes to my mind is the word freedom. His work deals with freedom in different ways. Freedom to walk, observe, and make art out of his experience of wandering around. Freedom to move in and out of the art world as he pleases and needs. Freedom to assemble or connect certain things and disconnect other ones. Freedom to make material what is abstract and abstract what is material.
Anyway, one day he made this work, a performance that a friend of his, a photographer, documented. I call it a performance now but I’m not sure if he would. It was winter and a blizzard was forecasted for that week… so he decided to go out and set up a parche on the sidewalk using a fabric or rug-like surface, similar to yours. He set it up in an area with a lot of foot-traffic in lower Manhattan, near a school called Cooper Union, and offered a series of snowballs for sale. He organized them in rows from large to small, with the largest ones set up on the back row, closest to where he was standing, and the smaller ones in the front. He made five or seven different sizes. The quantity of each size increased with the size of the snowballs. I remember seeing many large balls and just a few little ones in the photos. Talking about this piece not long ago, someone mentioned that he probably bought some type of molds to make the balls, maybe the type that you can find at a one-dollar store, but I think it´s also likely that he made each one of them with his own hands, using the snow he found around where he set up his colorful parche. It’s not clear if he sold any of them, maybe he did. I heard once that he sold one — a man bought it, someone said. But only him and his photographer friend really know. What the pictures show is that he was there against a wall, standing right behind his parche of snowballs on the sidewalk. Sometimes he appears in the pictures alone but sometimes he appears interacting with people who stopped by. Other photos show people turning around and looking at him and his merchandise. I´d assume that some of them were curious and exchanged a few words with the snowball seller. What did they talk about? It’s hard to know, but I think what matters is that they had the chance to talk. He likes that. I’ve heard he likes storytelling. And I bet he likes rumors, too.
My cousin followed me with a certain curiosity but with a slight look of confusion. After all, her ability to sustain herself directly depends on the sales she’s able to make, so listening to me tell her about a guy who was trying to sell snowballs on the street probably sounded pointless and ironic. I insisted that the guy was an artist, a conceptual artist, and that the snowballs were probably an excuse for him to interact with people, they were the conduit that allowed for a series of conversations or interactions he wanted to have. When I asked my cousin if she usually talks with people when she’s selling her products on the street, her eyes widened, as if she was finally hearing something that made sense and sounded familiar to her. Absolutely! Talking with people is fundamental, and I think I’m good at it because people end up spending more time talking about other things, life-related stuff, and sometimes people buy even more things after we have connected through a random topic. You inevitably learn to read people through their behavior, their body language… I have a friend, an artisan too, who talks to people in a way that touches them in a special way. I’ve seen people cry just because she has said something about what she sees in them, or because she has asked a question that opens up another aspect of them. It’s amazing that this happens with random strangers on the street.
Then I told her that I still remember hearing people in Bogotá referring to the public areas — mostly the sidewalks — where street sellers used to sell their merchandise as “mercado del agáchese.” Agáchese means something like “bend down” in Spanish, it sounds like an order or a request a person gives to another. She started laughing, but then got very serious and said something like well, yeah! We expect people to crouch down or, at least, to not point at things with their foot! I get so mad when they do that.
At that point, we realized that we had walked past the street where we were supposed to turn, so we took a few seconds to get oriented and started walking in a different direction, toward our final destination. We had so much to catch up on that our three hour-long lunch felt short when we said goodbye and hugged each other again on the street.
The taxi ride back to the hotel felt different. I kept thinking about the way my cousin described her market and found it incredibly beautiful and brave that she has been making her own products, has been using her body to transport and display them, and employs her voice and sensitive but clever personality to sell them to strangers she encounters every day on the street. She controls every aspect of her work. This is definitely not the experience contemporary artists usually have, I thought. I arrived to the hotel and spent the rest of the day thinking about this in relation to the artist and his snowball sale work.
Market is an old word. Apparently, it was first invented back in the early twelfth century to describe a meeting scheduled at a fixed time for buying and selling products, mostly livestock and provisions. Later, the word was used to refer to the physical space where buyers and sellers convened (farmers markets and flea markets are examples of this today). Then, in the early seventeenth century, the invention of corporate shareholders (to issue bonds and shares of stock to the general public) began the foundation of the capital market that we know today. This new notion of the market became more of an abstract activity, removing the initial face-to-face interaction between people. Tangible products were replaced with speculative ones.
Selling snowballs on the street plays with all of these notions of the market. The street, as a place for encounters, is certainly a physical market, and by selling snowballs, the artist not only offered something that was not “on the market,” but created a market and a value for it. Where is its value? The price charged for the snowballs is not as relevant as the idea of them having any value at all. After it’s been purchased, would a snowball lose its value once it melts? Or would the snowball’s intangible and ephemeral value be higher when it’s gone?
Last year, a friend told me the story of Curtis Caroll, an inmate in San Quentin State Prison who taught himself to read, and then studied the stock market and its patterns while in prison. Without the use of computers or calculators, he devised a system that predicted stock fluctuations, and his portfolio, apparently, has made him a significant amount of money (he has never shared the precise amount). Without revealing the formula he invented, he says that rumors, in the end, are what have the most influence in the market. He studies the stock market based on the “stories” that appear throughout the different sections of the newspaper every day — news, gossip, scandals — and he invests his money based on the emotional weight he thinks those stories may have.
In the snowball piece, speculation and rumors play important roles as well. There’s the rumor of the weather forecast, predicting that a blizzard might come to the city the following day, as well as all the possible theories and stories about what happened and did not happen during the performance that day. The photographic documentation establishes some kind of factual foundation, but most of the story remains open to interpretation and to collective construction over time.
In that sense, I believe that the heart of this work lies in how it’s talked about. This is where it gets complicated. By letting oral history play such a dominant role, the artist points to his interest in the way broader social and economic systems assign value to things, including the system that is the art world. But he’s not only “knowledgeable” about those pre-existing systems in the sense of being a keen observer — he’s an expert at playing with them and at inventing his own.
His models are the masters of jazz: they know the theory, vocabulary, rules, history, and structure of music so well that they are able to play music and play with music’s system at the same time. When those musicians are together on stage, what gives meaning to their exchange is the tension between all that is familiar, logical, and previously known, and all that is not. Negotiation and deliberation is at the core of their dynamic — as the snowball seller knows all too well.
In this piece, snowballs are an excuse for strangers to have a conversation or a negotiation in the midst of a context where everybody is “nobody.” On the street, people are invisible, until they’re acknowledged by someone else. But the artist did more than simply provide a context for a series of casual interactions: he and his photographer friend also provided us with the illusion that we can imagine, understand, and construct the meaning of all that is not visible in the few photos that exist from that day.